There is a children’s story written for adults. It’s called The Little Prince, and it tells the story of a small Prince from an asteroid far, far away. This Prince meets an airplane pilot who has crashed landed in the Sahara desert; the pilot is attempting to fix his plane before his rations run out. These two people share stories, and the little Prince asks many questions of the harried pilot. The Prince is especially keen to hear about baobab trees as he has the very same trees on his tiny planet.
The Prince explains that the baobab trees grow to great heights on his little planet, and he must be diligent to tend to the tiny shoots as soon as they spring from the ground. The Prince shares that he must watch the small saplings and distinguish them from other saplings like rose bushes or radishes. As soon as he can tell the baobab plant from a rose plant, he pulls it from the ground immediately. Why? The baobab plant will grow into a huge tree, suffocating and destroying all other living plants.
The Prince takes his task quite seriously but has the most simplistic approach: every baobab starts out as a small plant, easy to uproot. It’s when the plant grows roots and becomes larger that the responsibility of pulling up the destructive plant becomes a chore and greatly challenging. The Prince speaks of tending all plants and using the wisdom he has learned to be able to distinguish the good from bad plants. And, if he fails to tend his plants, he creates much more trouble for himself later.
Our Old Testament reading this morning speaks of commandments and land and ancestry and nations and children. It speaks of keeping statutes — careful of not adding or deleting anything — so that Israel could enter the land God gifted them with. But there were two points that stood out to me: The first is Moses said “You must observe them diligently…so that your wisdom and discernment will be known.” The second point is that the people were to talk of what they’d seen with their eyes to their children and their children’s children.
Let’s go back to the first for a minute. Moses instructs that the people follow the law for the purpose of wisdom and discernment He says for the people to watch themselves closely, notice their actions, observe their behaviors. Moses tells the people to stay awake and be alert. As a matter of fact, all of our readings this morning, including the Psalm, have quite a few guidelines: be quick to listen and slow to speak, slow to anger, welcome meekness, persevere in doing good, fear God, do not go back on a promise, do not give money in the hope that you’ll get it back, be gentle and kind to friends, do not hate your neighbor. There are more, but I believe you understand where I’m going.
The second point Moses states is to tell their children and children’s children. But did he intend for the people to share only the laws? To focus on the statutes? I don’t think so. No. I believe Moses is telling the people to celebrate what God had done in their lives, not the do’s and don’t’s of being Israel. He encourages telling the children about God and who He’s revealed Himself to be so that they don’t forget. The people have witnessed the God of unbroken promise, of salvation from the tyranny of Egypt, of satisfaction and nourishment during the desert years.
I believe we can find the response to the Old Testament passage in our Gospel. In Mark’s letter we read of Jesus confronting the Pharisees, those direct descendants in both blood and tradition who define their own righteousness by their adherence to the rules. These Pharisees question how the disciples can eat food with “unclean” hands. How can Jesus desire to be around this small group of men who fail so miserably to keep the rules of their ancestors? Why would this presumed Messiah remain in the company of such lawlessness and lack of respect for Jewish heritage? Goodness, sounds a bit like OSU versus OU, doesn’t it?
And the response of Jesus? He calls the Pharisees hypocrites because they say they love God and yet have hollow hearts. There is no love. There is only law. The Pharisees, throughout their ancestry, instructed their children and their children’s children focusing on one aspect of Moses’s instruction while losing the reality of miracles and beauty and grace of the Almighty.
I have a show that I binge watch. It’s on Netflix and called “The West Wing.” President Jed Bartlett and Toby and Leo and Josh and CJ and Charlie and Donna. I can laugh and weep in the same episode. It makes me proud to be an American. It inspires me to do more than I do right now. I was watching a Christmas episode the other day. A Yale men’s chorus was trapped at the White House because of a snow storm, so they were singing in the atrium.
“O holy night
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth
The thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder brinks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees
O hear the angel voices
O night divine
O night divine when Christ was born.”
The Pharisees, so blinded by their rigid ways, failed to see that the man who would save the world was standing in front of them…and they failed to fall on their knees. Their passion or need or dependency for law usurped their love for the man who actually was the mercy of the law.
The Little Prince says that when he completes his morning routine, he begins pulling the saplings of the baobab trees on his planet. And, we are to do the same. When we see a baobab in our hearts, we are to pull it out. We are to follow Moses and do so “diligently” completing the tedious work of pulling what will corrupt out of our hearts. We stay engaged in this work so that we will be able to recognize what draws us away from God more quickly, as Moses said that wisdom and discernment would become stronger. The work is easy. What makes it hard is when we let those temptations remain and grow roots and become established sin within us.
Jesus says that whatever is within the heart will come out. Nothing we do happens unless we have it in our hearts first. Good acts come from good seeds and bad acts come from bad seeds. What do you see within your heart that chokes the grace you could offer someone? What scraps of anger or humiliation or envy or revenge do you cling to? What weeds are you fertilizing because you don’t know how your life would be if it weren’t the way it is right now? What are you telling and teaching your children and your children’s children?
We will do this work in a few moments when we pray the Confession. Our thoughts and words and deeds. Not loving God and not loving our neighbors. What we’ve done and what we’ve left undone. We seek forgiveness for allowing ourselves to be stained. We pull the weeds.
And, as we do the work, we receive the love of Jesus as we receive His precious Body and Blood. It is at the Eucharist as a result of the love and reverence we feel that we fall on our knees and hear the angel voices. It is at the Eucharist that we take Himself that He freely offers, and we offer ourselves in return. And it is at the Eucharist that we receive love so that we give it back to one another, to our neighbors, to the orphans and widows, to our children and our children’s children.
Let us pray. Almighty God, you gave us life and you gave us your son. Keep us close to your laws because they guide us to your Son. Holy Jesus, you lived and taught and died for us. Keep us close to your truth of love and grace. Precious Holy Spirit, you speak and move through us from the Father and the Son. Move and inspire and be within us so that we may love you more and lead others to you. Amen.